As a ‘90s kid, I’ve been subjected to some questionable food trends. Somehow, we all thought sugary cereal constituted a decent breakfast, and Lunchables were considered a downright gourmet meal. I will never forget the Toaster Strudel-induced sugar rush I would get at 7 a.m. before I caught the bus to school; I can’t help but to think the effects must have been at least somewhat comparable to the attention-enhancing pharmaceuticals much of my generation was force-fed to get them through the school day.
But there was one food that seemingly everyone was vehemently against at the time: Brussels sprouts. It seemed to be a running joke that Brussels sprouts were disgusting, and every media depiction of the vegetable framed it as something you’d never want on your plate. Occasionally, my mom would cook Brussels sprouts by steaming them in a plastic bag with some herby butter, but it was an exercise in futility; they would go nearly untouched on everyone’s plates and ultimately end up in the trash by the end of the night.
Times have changed. It now seems like every trendy restaurant has Brussels sprouts on the menu. You’ll find Brussels sprouts crisped and fried, sauteed in a gochujang-miso sauce and doused in obscene mountains of cheese. Of course, a growing interest in healthy eating is probably partially to thank for Brussels sprouts’ recent success (as it turns out, soggy Lean Cuisines aren’t that great for us after all). But there’s more to the story than consumers’ desire to lead healthier lifestyles. These days, Brussels sprouts actually taste much different than they once did.
In the early ‘90s, Dutch scientists experimenting with the vegetable discovered why Brussels sprouts tasted so bitter: It’s all thanks to compounds called glucosinolates. These compounds actually serve as a defense mechanism for the plant, as insects are less likely to snack on the plants if they have a strong, unpleasant taste. Once these compounds were discovered, though, scientists were able to selectively breed the plants to have less of those markedly bitter compounds. They then found ways to breed these less-bitter sprouts to ensure they would guarantee high yields, and the new age of Brussels sprouts was born. The vast majority of Brussels sprouts grown today are considerably less bitter than the Brussels sprouts millennials and older generations ate as kids.
In 2019, NPR reported on the growing phenomenon of Brussels sprouts on restaurant menus, and it doesn’t look like the trend has slowed much since then. Order the veggie at any nice restaurant, and you’ll be met with a dish that has a subtle, nutty flavor to it, sometimes with a touch of sweetness, particularly if the sprouts have been roasted. The bitterness is still there to some extent, but chances are, it’ll be significantly more pleasant than the soggy green Brussels sprouts you once had to choke down at the dinner table before you were excused.
If you’re still scarred from the Brussels sprouts experiences of your youth, you’re not alone. There are plenty of people out there who still don’t love them, even despite the milder flavor. Brussels sprouts are a kind of cruciferous vegetable, a family of veggies that’s known for its bitter flavors, and not everyone loves their distinctly stinky aroma and intense, green flavor. However, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables are undeniably good for your health; they’re often regarded as superfoods. If you want to enjoy the benefits of these types of veggies, it’s worth knowing how to prepare Brussels sprouts in a way you actually enjoy.
Caramelizing your Brussels sprouts by roasting them is a solid way to ensure that you’re not overwhelmed by that bitter flavor. Not only does roasting your sprouts give them a lovely char and a softer-but-still-crispy texture, but it also sweetens them, which can help counteract that strong bitterness that some diners dislike. Adding a sweet component like honey or agave syrup to the dish can also help counteract the bitterness of your sprouts.
Of course, Brussels sprouts may never be your thing, but those of us who love the flavor are enjoying the Brussels boom happening at hot spots all around the country. I’ll continue ordering the Brussels sprouts whenever I see them on a menu, confident that, despite the global climate crisis and general sense that the world is falling apart, at least I’m still getting better sprouts than my grandma ever did.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.